The Kennedy Center Honors is an annual honor given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture (though recipients do not need to be U.S. citizens). The Honors have been presented annually since 1978, culminating each December in a star-studded gala celebrating the Honorees in the Kennedy Center Opera House.
George Stevens, Jr. created the Kennedy Center Honors with the late Nick Vanoff, and produced the first gala in 1978. He was the producer and co-writer through the 2014 awards, after which he sold the production rights to new producers.
The Kennedy Center Honors started in 1977, after that year's 10th-anniversary White House reception and Kennedy Center program for the American Film Institute (AFI). Roger L. Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, asked George Stevens, Jr., (no relation), the founding director of the AFI, to hold an event for the Center. George Stevens asked Isaac Stern to become involved, and then "pitched" the idea to the television network CBS, who "bought it." With the announcement of the first honors event and honorees, CBS vice president for specials Bernie Sofronski stated:
"George [Stevens] came to us with this. What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind. In Europe and most countries, they have ways of honoring their actors and their athletes. England has its command performances for the queen. We see this as a national honoring of people who have contributed to society, not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment...Our intention is not to do just another award show. We're going to make an effort in terms of a real special."
The first host was Leonard Bernstein in 1978, followed by Eric Sevareid in 1979 and Beverly Sills in 1980. Walter Cronkite hosted from 1981 to 2002 and Caroline Kennedy hosted from 2003 until 2012. Glenn Close was host in 2013 and Stephen Colbert hosted in 2014 and 2015.
Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment were selected as Executive Producers of the 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors (2015) after George Stevens, Jr. stepped down.
This is one of the few awards shows that does not air live (with the exception of closed-circuit venues), but a re-edited 92-minute version generally airs on CBS after the Christmas holiday.